Fast Company

Suddenly, Everyone's an Expert on Fixing Oil Spills

When it comes to halting the gush of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, we've heard all sorts of ideas. Nothing seems too outrageous at this point. From Kevin Costner's oil separation technology he invested in after the Exxon Valdez spill, to the possibility of using James Cameron's underwater robots he developed while shooting Titanic. Even tossing a nuclear bomb down the pipeline doesn't seem too unrealistic when large groups of scientists begin to rally behind the cause. Ideas are great, but what to do with all this information, besides publish it and hope it reaches the right ear? BP itself isn't breaking any ground when it comes to searching for solutions: They just opened a hotline for taking your ideas--yes, you have to pick up a phone.

No matter, media outlets large and small have engaged readers in one massive group-think-outside-the-box exercise. We've got our own channel of suggestions open, and received ideas ranging from blocking the oil well like an artery to oil-eating microbes. We know why an open-ideation session between creatives can pull out new concepts that the military management may have missed. The value of crowdsourcing for a disaster like this could arguably be highly impactful, but we've yet to have our shiny new technological tools tested for such a challenge. 

Could an American Idol-style text-your-best-idea really work?

A company that specializes in crowdsourcing named InnoCentive thinks so. It has added the oil spill as its latest Ideation Challenge. Located on their competition-like site, over 200,000 registered "solvers" can contribute solutions and potentially win up to $1,000,000 if their ideas get picked (but most prizes are in the $10,000 to $20,000 range). InnoCentive also has experience with oil spills: A previous challenge worked with the Oil Spill Recovery Institute to stop a spill in Cordova, Alaska. Solver John Davis won $20,000 by applying what he already knew from the cement industry. I see this public display of aid in the form of "solving" as a new way for people to show their support for a cause--but by tossing up productive ideas instead of carrying signs to city hall. InnoCentive has all the key attributes--an empassioned community and a good track record--and ideas are flowing in.

Where are all the creative and strategic firms?

Boulder-based ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky opened up a brainstorming session that resuted in 17 solutions which were posted to an employee's blog, including the Oil Island idea above. I've never doubted the value in outrageous or ridiculous solutions when it comes to solving massive problems, and we can all clearly see now that BP isn't a company that's blessed with this kind of white-sheet, anything-is-possible brainpower. But where are the self-professed design thinkers who have already been hired by BP in the past? The designers at Landor helped create a beautiful new logo that transformed BP's image (which is now getting dragged through the mud, er, oil). Didn't two strong design companies--Office dA and BIG at Ogilvy + Mather-- help steer BP towards that stunning Helios House?

Which brings us to the star power.
Bringing in a Hollywood director to solve this hairy challenge might be a better, more BP-friendly approach than surveying the wisdom of crowds. I wrote last year about how the military approached entertainment execs to develop products like simulators that can train soldiers for IED attacks. This may make Cameron a front-runner since he he has something other creatives don't: Access. Cameron was recently invited to a brainstorming session with 20 scientists, engineers, marine biologists at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency. And it's not the first time he's been tapped to advise on science matters: He is already working with a San Diego company on something called the Mastcam, a robotic camera that will be headed to Mars on the next Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission. Not to bring up one of those record-holding movies that Avatar trounced at the box office, but, help us James Cameron, you may be our only hope.

Want to read about some of the other creative solutions proposed by our readers? Check them out here, here, here, and here.

Read more about the Gulf Oil Spill

Got information on the spill you want to share? Email us at oil@fastcompany.com. It'll go directly to the lead reporter and editor on these stories, and they'll assume all initial communication to be strictly confidential.

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3 Comments

  • PBarrett

    Ok, here goes. What is the overall diameter of the riser equipment? Say five feet? Can't we get a steel pipe thats slightly larger in diameter, and longer than the top of the broken rise, PRESS it by force several feet into the ground around it, then weld another smaller diameter pipe onto it and so on until we can take control of the flow up into waiting tankers? Seems simple enough, just look at the technology they had in the 1920's/30's for buildling the Golden Gate Bridge foundations.

  • Richard Mavin Beazley

    What is the diameter of the leaking pipe... let's say 36 inches..it might be more...

    The effluent from the leak, mainly oil and water and maybe gas rises vertically before it spreads out and gets dispersed by currents etc.

    My suggestion is a very long PIPE, say 40 inches in diameter, fabricated on barges right above the spill and then lowered into the water as the length increases until it is 5000 feet long....nothing new about this, pipelaying ships do it all the time. the bottom end of the pipe can be controlled by cables from other vessels. Eventually the pipe will be 5000 feet and hanging vertically from the surface. In the water it is virtually weightless. At the bottom end ROV's would be used to position the pipe. Very little extra force would be needed to guide the open lower end of the pipe over the spewing oil and gas, until it is completely over it. once lowered, it can be held down by anchors and all the thousands of barrels would be forced to the surface....where it can be controlled more easily ...collected on tankers or whatever, filtered out and the water returned to the sea.
    probably a lot of things why this might not be possible...but I'd be pleased to hear any comments.

  • bob alexander

    Calculate or estimate force thrust of discharge fluid.
    A delta of 500psi for a 20in pipe is 150,000.#
    Select barge or old oil tanker if sunk that would be big enough and heavy enough to resist the thrust..
    My cals. show any dead load.>100 lbs/sq. ft assuming 100' by 50' surface area would resist the thrustt. Therefore fully load the barge Flat Bottomed and sink over the pipe discharge.
    Drop stone to level off the receiving areas The key problem would be guiding the decent so the barge is centered on the pipe. Perhaps better engineers can tweek this idea to work and solve this problem